Violence ruptures Gaza Strip truce

Nine injured in battle of rival Palestinian factions

February 04, 2007|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM -- Gunmen from rival Palestinian factions battled sporadically in the Gaza Strip yesterday despite a tentative cease-fire.

The skirmishes between the ruling Hamas movement and its rival, Fatah, were not as sustained or heavy as those of the previous two days, which left 23 people dead and scores more injured. Still, at least nine people were wounded yesterday.

By evening, representatives from the two groups agreed to restore the cease-fire, which began to unravel nearly as soon as it was announced Friday.

Under terms announced late yesterday by Interior Minister Said Siyam of Hamas, the groups agreed to withdraw their forces, dismantle impromptu checkpoints and leave the streets in the hands of police. But there was no immediate sign of a pullback.

For much of the day, gunmen were virtually the only people on the streets of Gaza City and areas to the north.

Shooting broke out early yesterday near a base used by security forces loyal to Fatah and again around the compound of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads Fatah.

Meanwhile, Fatah forces occupied two ministries of the Hamas-led government, Agriculture and Communications. Hamas said the gunmen destroyed furniture and stole computer equipment.

Although the fighting had tapered off, the air in Gaza City was of a place besieged.

Masked gunmen manned makeshift checkpoints to hunt for their rivals. Businesses, universities and most schools were shuttered, leaving more than 200,000 children without classes.

The United Nations called yesterday for an end to the violence, saying it was endangering aid workers and hindering the ability of humanitarian agencies to provide assistance.

Previous cease-fire deals have fallen apart, and there was no sign that the new agreement would hold.

The violent power struggle began when Hamas toppled the long-dominant Fatah during parliamentary elections in January 2006.

Both sides have heavily armed militias.

Most of the 70,000 members of the security forces are at least nominally loyal to Fatah. Hamas has thousands of armed militants and commands a newly created police agency, called the Executive Force, numbering about 6,000 men.

Repeated efforts to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement have failed. Abbas is to travel to Saudi Arabia this week for talks with Khaled Mashaal, the exiled Hamas political leader, who is based in Syria.

The two men met in Damascus, the Syrian capital, last month but were unable to bridge their differences.

Abbas has tried to persuade Hamas to agree to a shared political program that would meet Western demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Western nations cut off most aid to the Palestinian Authority after the election last year because they consider Hamas a terrorist group.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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